Assassin
Assassin     Thayer, Thayer, Thayer. He slipped on the familiar personality like well worn gloves. Thayer the clever assassin, never caught no matter the price on his head. He tucked his chin, hiding his eyes from the two rough looking men passing him in the shabby alley. The place reeked of vomit, urine, and dead things. The men shouted, punching each other in the arm, entering the Goat N Ale bar.

     Thayer stayed at the corner, kicking at a piece of broken and rotting wood, possibly the remains of a bucket. He hated coming to the stinking part of the city, but he had to find out for certain. He needed to see the man with his own eyes. If it was true, the infamous Iron Fist was paying the city of Brunswick a visit, Thayer’d have to uncover the reason. He’d need to find out the Lovely Guest just to be certain it wasn’t him. Lovely Guests die for lovely pay, and Thayer’s list of enemies was extensive, even if they didn’t know him by name.

     The rickety bar door shattered as a man flew through it, thrown out by the barkeep or another patron. It was one of the men who passed Thayer earlier. He landed heavily in the dust and groaned. The man’s friend hastily exited and pulled on his arm. 

     A large, heavyset man stepped out of Goat N Ale. “Don’t let me find you here again, you filthy horsebags. I don’t take kindly to beggars.”

     Thayer leaned into the shadow of an overhang when he saw the gleaming metal under the sleeve cuff of the heavyset man. Iron Fist was never one to fade into the crowd, until he got close to the kill, the lovely guest. Looking up and down the alley, Iron Fist paused. 

     Thayer wondered if he’d been noticed. His fingers glazed over his dagger, Shadow Fang. The weapon was special, keeping him from being seen in shadow, but it couldn’t help if he’d already been spotted. At least, it couldn’t hide. It could still sting the heart. Kill. 

     Iron Fist retreated into the bar as the other man managed to prop his friend under his shoulder and limp away. Thayer released his breath. What was Iron Fist doing in Brunswick? Did he have a job, or did he hunt the clever assassin. More likely the former. Thayer had been very careful in his withdrawal from the profession. 

     Perhaps Monkeyman would know. Tonight he’d come to Drunken Hideaway, a tavern near the boarding house where Thayer lived. It wasn’t the best part of town, but he had to keep submerged within the peasants of the city, the laborers and peasants. It was better than this dump. Thayer slipped around the corner and left Iron Fist to the seedy thieves who preferred the stench of such a place as Goat N Ale.

     While sitting at his favorite table at Drunken Hideaway, the one furthest from the fire, he scanned the room of regulars. Monkeyman wasn’t here yet.

     William, William, William. The personality of a tutor for hire, living meagerly in a shared boarding room while waiting for a position, fell on Thayer like a soft spun coat. He’d some concern for this role, because he’d used it before under different names, but then he had been employed as a tutor. It was a good way to collect gossip among the nobles, to scope out possible jobs. Nobles always had a Lovely Guest they would pay handsomely to be well cared for. 

     One of the young men William roomed with crossed from the bar and pulled out a chair, scraping it along the wooden floor. “I’m running low, Will. Buy me a drink?”

     Something wasn’t right. At eighteen years old, Henri wasn’t a lightweight drinker. Well, he was drunk, but he also was rumpled. William had never seen the kid look so unkempt. The kid’s younger brother, yes, now that one wouldn’t know what a comb looked like. “You okay?”

     “Yeah, just broke is all. And thirsty.” 

     “Where’s that kid brother of yours?”

     Henri’s eyes darted left. His hand shook, then stilled. He brushed his arm over wild hair. “Rene is… Heck, what do I know? Rene is Rene. He’s out causing trouble. You know, the usual.”

     Something was wrong. “Not caught pick pocketing?”

     Henri laughed. “No. No way. He doesn’t do that anymore. Not since that one time.” Henri tipped his empty glass for a drink, but nothing came out. 

     That one time. Amusing way to put it. Henri thought William called in a favor to get Rene out of trouble, but the truth was, favors were just really big bags full of money. “Here.” William flipped a coin across the table. 

     Henri snatched it up, staring at it. “Funny thing, Will. This guy at the quarry bet he could come up with a better assassin story than the rest of us. Well, it was foolish I guess, but I took the bet.” His eyes never left the coin. “Being a teacher, you probably know quite a bit about the history of assassinations. Maybe you can help. How would you go about killing, let’s say, Lord Gaston?”

     “Of House Gaston? It’d depend. I’d get into the household, as a servant, a guard or a guest. Then I’d find a time he was alone, maybe at the privy, and I’d stab him, here,” William pointed under his ribcage, “pushing the blade up into the lung. He couldn’t scream while I slashed his throat.

     “That’d be the simplest, the fastest way, from what I know of history.”

     Henri nodded his head. “I need some fresh air.” He left Drunken Hideaway, pocketing the coin and forgetting about the drink.

     William frowned. This day wasn’t turning out so well. An image of another young man crossed his mind, this one with sandy blond hair and dimpled cheeks. Further back sat a woman behind a hanging sheet. He envisioned the silhouette of her on a stool, humming. No day would be that bad again, no matter what Henri and Rene had gotten mixed up in. 

     Besides, he wasn’t responsible for the boys. True, they were orphaned early on, but they’d made out before he met them. Henri was a grown man, and Rene wasn’t very far from being able to marry if he had the means to support a bride. Still, perhaps he should check out who might want Lord Gaston as a Lovely Guest. He had a hunch.

     William left the tavern without seeing Monkeyman. He climbed the creaky stairs of the boarding house to the attic storage room. After moving aside a large, cracked, dusty mirror from in front of a locked closet, he turned the key and entered a small hideaway, one of many he kept in the city. He opened a trunk and sorted through the various clothing, some shabby, some elegant, and selected a green tunic and fine hosiery, that of a nobleman. In another trunk he sorted through documents, pulling out a few. Last, he changed into the fine clothes, filled a velvet purse with coins, and pulled a workman’s mantle close around his neck. No one must see his disguise before he left the quarter. 

     He walked at a fast clip into the nicer part of the city, stopping at the stable of Horse and Rider Inn to buy a horse, one as nondescript as possible. Stablemen tend to remember horses. He planned to make it hard for them, if they saw this gelding again. After attaching his bags, William rode out of the south gate, looped around, and entered the city from the east. He passed the council hall and the Temple of Viedonna, bisecting the city toward the estate of Lord Delano. After presenting the guardsmen at the gate with one set of papers and entering the estate, the steward led him to a receiving chamber. 

     Thayer, Thayer, Thayer. He looked around the room, noting all exits. It was a habit of Thayer’s, and he was Thayer, for the moment.

     Lord Delano, an older but capable man, entered. His hair had grayed since the last time Thayer saw him. “Good evening, Bruno the Bruce. To what do I owe this honor? Are you looking for a certain guest?” 

     Two guards hovered a few steps from the Lord. 

     “I don’t receive guests of my former employers, as you know.” A lie, of course, but Thayer took great pains to keep it unknown. Most of his employers never knew his previous engagements, except from those who recommended him. And the dead don’t talk.

     “You’ve made a reputation of it.” Lord Delano motioned the guards to wait outside. He lowers himself in a nearby ornate chair. “Please, sit. I have to admit my surprise at seeing you. I thought you were dead.” He smiled. “What can I do for you, Thayer? Why have you surfaced, dragging me away from my dinner party?”

     “I won’t keep you long, Lord Delano.” Thayer plopped into another cushioned chair. He liked making noise and seeming somewhat clumsy when not working. It made his true calling less obvious. New employers often scratched their heads in bewilderment, until the results happened. He was as good as his reputation. “I’ve seen Iron Fist here in Brunswick.”

     “Oh. Curious.” Delano steepled his hands in his lap.

     “I also know Lord Gaston is causing you plenty of trouble with the royal house.”

     “It’s no secret he’s a thorn in my side.”

     “I’ve heard that Gaston is quite lovely these days. Tell me, if you will, is Iron Fist in your pocket?”

     “I can tell you for certain that he is not. I have no idea why he’d be here, unless…” Delano pressed a finger to his lips and raised an eyebrow.

     “Go on.”

     “Well, you’re here.”

     “So he isn’t your man?” Thayer watched for signs Delano might be lying, a dart of an eye, scratching at the face, nervousness. There were none.

     “No.” 

     Still nothing, but he was a man of experience. Thayer had one more trick up his sleeve. “I’m thinking of heading over to Lord Gaston’s tonight, if you’re in need of a man.”

     “I assure you, I’m not.”

     Thayer eyed him, holding his body still while Delano looked away. He had to play this one tight if he was to find out anything.

     “How long have you been here, Thayer?” Surprise crept over Delano’s face. “You’ve been holed up here, in my city.” His lips turned up.

     “But not after tonight.” He kept his manor relaxed, friendly. Usually, people let the truth peek out after three tries, but Thayer delivered the fourth with as much precision as the others. It was his routine. And besides, Delano knew something. “So do you need a hand with Gaston?”

     Delano sat back in his chair, wiping at the opulent sleeve of his surcoat. “How can I say this? You see, Lord Gaston won’t be a problem much longer. No one will lay my name on it. I always make sure I’m quite clean in these matters.”

     Thayer raised his eyebrows.

     “Not Iron Fist. That man is a bungler.”

     “A layman?”

     “Of course not. You know me better than that.” Delano leaned forward. “You’ve done good work for me in the past with several Lovely Guests. That’s the only reason I’m telling you. It’s an insider. Won’t Gaston be surprised? Nothing trails back to me. Now if you don’t mind, I must get back to my party. The guards will see you out,” Delano winked. ”Bruno the Bruce.”

     Thayer made his next stop at Lord Gaston’s. He waited in the receiving room.

     Bruno Didier, Bruno Didier, Bruno Didier. The noble title fell on him like a warm, familiar blanket. 

     He didn’t care one wit about Gaston. The man was a drunkard and a hothead. Henri looked serious and forlorn at the tavern, and where was Rene? Iron Fist was in the city, possibly to dance with a Lovely Guest. How did it all fit together? Maybe it didn’t, but Bruno didn’t like the twist in his stomach. 

     Lord Gaston entered followed by several guards and noble guests. “Lord Didier? Youngest son of Baron Didier. I haven’t the honor of your acquaintance.”

     A noble lady laughed lightly, turning to whisper to the woman beside her.

     “Nor I of you, and it’s just Bruno, if you will. My eldest brother is the heir, and I must make my own name, I’m afraid.”

     “But of course.” Gaston smiled. “I’m pleased you thought to stop here during your stay in Brunswick, though I’m surprised you didn’t send correspondence announcing your presence in my fair city.”

     “That is only because my travel was inconvenienced, of course. I never planned to journey through Brunswick.”

     Gaston sat and motioned for Bruno to join him. “What ills beseech you?”

     Bruno lifted one corner of his mouth in a wry smile. Gaston couldn’t step outside of his flowery language to use his informal first name. “Bandits outside of Laramie forced me south, to avoid them.”

     “You travel alone?”

     “My father didn’t believe accompaniment necessary, as I am quite experienced in travel. I prefer it also, to avoid the trouble the look of a noble’s entourage brings. I sent my father word by post. My delay to Ribu will certainly cause him trouble.”

     “Nonsense, dear boy. Surely he planned for such an occasion.” Gaston waved a hand in the air.

     Bruno shrugged. “Perhaps.”

     “Come, join us in the Great Hall. You are just in time for dinner.”

     “A feast, really.” The noble lady wore a purple gown, and gold jewelry. Her brown hair swept up in a twist above her neck. She stepped close to Lord Gaston.

     “Hush, Pappet.”

     “Dinner is always a feast,” she said.

     “Well I certainly can afford the best.” Gaston smiled.

     The Great Hall was large. Tapestries hung from every wall. Stone pillars lined the edges of the room, carved with fairies and dragons. The head table sat on a raised dias with the Lord’s throne-like chair in the center. Long tables held full plates and steaming bowls of food. Many people stood nearby, waiting for Lord Gaston. The scent of venison and roasted pig wafted in the air. 

     Bruno spooned soup onto a piece of simnel bread and took a bite. Roasted duck lay on a platter on the other side of the soup. He carved off a leg. Peppered with questions by the nobles, he chatted offhandedly about life in Castle Didier where he once worked as a tutor. If anyone had visited Baron Didier, they’d be fooled by his knowledge of the family’s castle life.

     He didn’t pay much attention to the conversations. Bruno eyed the servants and guards, wondering which was the traitor. A door opened toward the kitchens. Two men pushed a cart full of wine near the door, one of them was Henri, hair combed this time. 

     “Lord Gaston, the wine has arrived. Would you like a bottle now?” A guard asked.

     “Yes, of course, Lowell. A red.”

     Lowell snapped his fingers at the men pushing the cart and motioned a footman to retrieve the wine. Henri eyed the dining area and looked uneasy when he saw his friend, Will.

     Bruno didn’t know if it was because Henri never saw him in fancy clothing being entertained by nobility, or if it was because Henri shouldn’t have been there at all. Henri carried the bottle into the room, meeting the footman. Braking his gaze from Bruno, Henri examined Lord Gaston, then glanced at Lowell before rejoining the servant at the cart. They turned into an adjacent corridor. 

     Bruno watched Lowell walk to the door and close it.

     The night wore on and Bruno kept Lord Gaston entertained long after the other guests retired to their rooms. Gaston drank yet another glass of wine, spilling half of it down his clothing. Bruno poured his glass into a leftover soup bowl when Gaston wasn’t looking. The footman had fallen asleep sitting on the floor near the door.

     “What, uh, what do you think, my boy? Another round?”

     Bruno swayed like he was drunk. “Ummm… I think that’s it for me. I don’t know if I can find the stable in this state.”

     Gaston smiled. “Well, you can’t blame yourself, my boy. I’ve been drinking since before you were born. There aren’t many who can, you know, out drink me.” He chuckled. Gaston rose and stumbled. “Footman!”

     “Let me help you to your chamber, Lord.” Bruno reached for Gaston with one hand while keeping a cup of tomato soup out of sight in the other.

     “Ha! Like you can help me, in your state.” The two men leaned on each other as they passed the guards in the corridor. “Where is that footman? Poor help.” Gaston mumbled. “No, turn here, this way. Are you sure you can find your way back? Should I send one of the guards with you?” Gaston gestured toward the door exiting his chambers where two guards were posted outside.

     “No need,” Bruno said as he bashed the base of a wood carving of a horse into Gaston’s head. The man collapsed. 

     Thayer, Thayer, Thayer. He needed to be quick. Henri was coming. 

     Thayer dragged Lord Gaston behind a tapestry in the second chamber, the bedroom. He pulled the sheets under the coverlet on the bed into a man-shape, pouring tomato soup on the chest position. After adjusting the coverlet, he waited behind the door with Shadow Fang in hand.

     The main door opened and slammed shut. Quick steps sounded on the stone floor. The person paused at the door of the second chamber. Thayer shifted his knife hand. 

     The intruder ran headlong toward the bed, jumping on top of the body and stabbing down into the chest, again and again. Henri. He stopped and sat up, looking at the blood on his shaking hands.

     Lowell rushed into the room. “What have you done!”

     “What you asked. Where’s my brother? Where’s Rene?”

     When he heard the ring of a sword being drawn, Thayer imagined Lowell smiled. 

     “Don’t worry about that maggot brother of yours.” Lowell’s voice was low. “I’ll take care of him. But you first.” He advanced.

     Thayer stepped from the shadows and thrust Shadow Fang up into the guard’s lung. Lowell fell to his knees, wheezing. Thayer sheathed the dagger, took Lowell’s head in both hands and twisted, snapping his neck.

     Henri moaned. “What have you done?”

     “That’s funny, I was going to ask you the same.” Thayer heard it too late, the sound of a boot on stone. He fell to the side, but the sword slashed his shoulder. Blood pouring down his back. Henri stared, eyes wide.

     “Traitors!” The guard ignored Thayer laying on the floor and rushed Henri.

     Stupid house guards. Thayer stabbed up into the man’s lung, and then snapped the neck.

     “I thought you said to cut the throat.”

     “I like variety.” Thayer smiled. “Come on now, we must hurry. There were two guards outside.”

     “Asleep.”

     “What?”

     “Drugged. By Lowell. Will, I killed him. I murdered Lord Gaston, and I don’t know where Rene is.”

     “You killed sheets covered in tomato soup.” Thayer pulled back the coverlet exposing the decoy.

     “Why are you here?” Henri asked. “Who are you?” 

     Thayer stanched his injured shoulder before riffling through a chest, finding an elegant traveling mantle to cover the wound. “Lets get Rene.” Thayer pulled a loop of keys from Lowell’s belt.

     Henri didn’t ask anymore questions. 

     They descended a staircase below the cellars, where a guard stopped them. While Henri talked, Thayer stepped around the man and hit him in the head with the blunt hilt of Shadow Fang. The man stumbled forward. Thayer hit him again. This time he fell.

     “Is he dead?”

     Thayer knelt to check. “No.” 

     They found Rene in a cell, weak and dehydrated. 

     “How were you planning on getting out?” Thayer asked.

     “Kitchen. I left some wine there for the staff.”

     Thayer nodded. He led the way while Henri carried his brother. Entering the kitchen, he stopped short. The staff looked up at the trio, forgetting the card game. The cook was passed out in the middle of the floor, hugging two unopened bottles in one arm. His other hand gripped the neck of a spilt bottle near two empty ones.

     “Wouldn’t share, ay?” Thayer asked.

     The scullery maid squinted in the gloom. “Who said that? 

     He had his hand on Shadow Fang, and blended into the flickering shadows. Thayer stepped behind Henri, released the hilt, and stepped out again.

     The woman grunted. 

     “You can take those two bottles. We won’t tell.” Thayer kept walking.

     “If you knew him, you wouldn’t take them,” she said. “Who are you?”

     “We’re new. The lord is enlarging the guard. This one here, well he found one of those bottles. We’re taking him to the stables. The water trough should sober him up.”

     The scullery maid smiled, then eyed the man next to her. “What’s this, Lou? Are you cheating?” 

     The staff’s eyes turned toward the man, and an argument ensued. Thayer heard the shouts as he led Henri and Rene through the dark, to the stables.

     Henri lifted a water skin to Rene’s lips as Thayer borrowed extra horses. The stable boy had seen eccentric behavior, such as night rides, in the past, and didn’t ask questions. Just to be certain of the lad, Thayer tipped the boy a few coins. Hooves rang on the pavement as they left. 

     Henri looked over at Thayer while his arms wrapped around Rene, holding his brother on the horse. “You really are an assassin.”

     Thayer shrugged.

     “Why’d you help us?”

     “There was another boy once, sandy hair.” Thayer looked out of the open curtain into the night sky as the memories poured through him. “I didn’t help him. And I lost… I lost something special.” He thought of the woman behind the hanging sheet. His pupil. His love, Jewell. His downfall, and the one who placed such a high price on his head.

     Thayer dropped off the youths at the boarding house and gave them a pouch full of coins. Henri asked what they should do. Thayer told them to get out of town. 

     Monkeyman barged into the boarding house calling William. 

     Thayer checked the windows to see if he was followed. “Up here.”

     Monkeyman took the stairs two at a time. His eyes were bright with excitement. “You have to get out, Will. And who is Jewell?” 

     “Iron Fist mentioned her?” Thayer asked. 

     “No, it was in a note, a contract to kill Thayer. Except it’s about you. Iron Fist is asking all over town for you.”

     “Good thing I’m leaving then. How’d you see that note?”

     Monkeyman nodded. “I stole it, of course. So who is this Jewell who wants you dead?”

     “The love of my life.” Thayer smiled sadly.

     “She wants you dead.” Monkeyman looked perplexed.

     “Yeah. Something about blaming me for killing her brother.” Thayer rubbed between his eyes. He couldn’t get away from it, from the pain of her hate. “I changed my mind. I wasn’t going to do it, but then there was an accident.” Thayer glanced out of the window again. “What did you tell Iron Fist?”

     “You know I talked to him?” Monkeyman asked.

     “You said he was looking for me, not the Thayer in the contract.”

     “You by description,” Monkeyman explained. “I told him you lived by the river. Was that the right thing?”

     “It’s fine. Thanks for finding and warning me.”

     Monkeyman smiled broadly. He clapped Thayer on the back. “Good luck to you, friend.”

     Thayer watched Monkeyman leave before clearing some things from the hidden attic closet. He went back to Horse and Rider for a fresh horse. Life in Brunswick was over.

 
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